I’ve been following with mild interest the controversy surrounding the use of the name Redskins for the NFL franchise located in Washington, D.C. People have been calling for the team to change its name for years. Recently 50 U.S. Senators sent a letter to NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, urging the league to change the name. The story made big news today with the announcement that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decided to cancel the Redskins trademark on their team name. The decision apparently doesn’t take affect immediately and they have the chance to appeal the decision.
Many are hailing today’s decision as the beginning of the end for the Redskins, or should I say the R-word. Yes, some find the word so offensive that they refuse to even say it or write it.
This leads me to question who gets to decide what is offensive and what is not offensive. Redskins owner, Daniel Synder, claims to have lots of support within the American Indian community for the name. Do their opinions matter? Well, they do matter, where it matters most. That is in the free market. The Redskins are a popular and successful franchise. They sell lots of tickets to their games, sell lots of merchandise with the Redskins logo, and millions watch the team play on TV. If the Redskins name were widely vilified the team would not be profitable. Clearly the fans of the team are either not bothered by the name or not bothered enough to withdraw support.
Support for the Redskins has been withdrawn at the government level. If the decision to cancel the trademark protection is upheld then Synder and the Redskins could lose a lot of money off of licensing fees for their name & presumably logo on all kinds of merchandise. Since all the other teams in the NFL except the Cowboys share in these fees, it’s not just Synder who could take a hit. So, one day the guy selling a Redskins t-shirt across the street from the stadium might not have to pay for that right.
And speaking of that guy selling Redskins t-shirts: right now if he were to do it, we’d say he’s selling “knock off” merchandise. He’s not playing by the governments trademark rules. But isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery? And if the Redskins name was so awful nobody would buy his t-shirts. But here’s the point: trademarked or not, people can still buy stuff with the Redskins name on it. They can cast their vote with their dollars. This probably annoys those 50 Senators who want the name changed.
The move to cancel the trademark is a step toward a more freer market. A free market by definition is free from government intervention. Should the government get out of the trademark and copyright business altogether? Good question, one I’m not going to try and tackle here. But one argument for the government leaving all this to the free market is the fact that in the U.S., the name “Jesus” is trademarked. I’m not kidding. An italian clothing company that makes “Jesus Jeans” got the trademark back in 2007. Another argument is the fact that most English translations of the bible are copyrighted.
With regards to the NFL, the governments meddling doesn’t end with trademarks. Did you know the NFL is technically a tax exempt organization? On top of that there’s the fleecing of tax payers with new stadiums being built with public money. Since 1997 20 new NFL stadiums have been built. 19 of them used public money that has paid for 71% of the cost of the projects.
Biblically speaking I keep thinking about the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Would a team called the Washington Whites or Washington Christians offend me? Maybe… maybe not. Clearly some are offended by the Redskins name, but like I’ve said before on this website, we live in a society where many are just itching at the chance to be offended. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office becomes convinced that the name “Jesus” is offensive, and they cancel the trademark on it.
For right now, if I were Daniel Synder, I would focus my attention to the product the Redskins are putting on the field. They can keep the team name or change it. It wouldn’t matter to me. Many teams, including colleges, already have changed names. The NBA franchise in Washington, D.C. changed their name from the Bullets to Wizards. Ultimately the worth of any NFL franchise will be determined on the field. And the field is where the true free market exists.